Have You Met… Mussels

This post is part of a series meant to spotlight ingredients, providing nutritional background, a little culinary inspiration, and perhaps encourage you to take an adventure into new markets and cuisines.

Have you met… Mussels?

Mussels — like clams, oysters and scallops — are bivalve mollusks with two hinged shells of their own making, each with a retractable “foot” that allows movement and burrowing. While found in both marine and fresh habitats, the latter are typically left for otters, raccoon and larger aquatic predators. Mussels themselves are filter-feeders, effectively straining microscopic plants and animals as food from the waters around them. Among these filtered nutrients is iron, which is used to produce an adhesive material for attachment to rocks, boats, piers and other submerged surfaces along the shoreline.

Fun fact: Some species of mussels can live to up to 100 years. At the maximum rate of filtration of 20 gallons per day, that’s 730,000 gallons in one lifetime — nearly 100,000 more than is contained in one Olympic-sized swimming pool!

What’s so great about them?

One 3-ounce serving of cooked mussels provides approximately 146 calories and is a great source of high-quality complete protein — more than 20 grams. This serving offers over 100% of your daily selenium, more than 250% of manganese, and nearly 350% of vitamin B12. In addition, mussels are a good source of antioxidant vitamin C, folate, phosphorous and zinc.

Ounce for ounce mussels provide more than 3x the amount of dietary iron than a beef tenderloin steak (5.71 mg vs. 1.74 mg), but are much leaner. Total and saturated fats are very low – 4 grams and less than 1 gram per serving, respectively. They are also among the richest sources of unsaturated fats in shellfish, associated with improved triglyceride levels, better heart and skin health, and reduced risk of certain cancers, age-related cognitive decline and diseases of the eye. Found in particularly high amounts are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – over 600 mg per serving – considered the most beneficial omega-3 fats.

Mussels are a natural source of sodium, providing roughly 315 mg of the ≤ 1,500 mg/day. And even though mussels, like shrimp and other shellfish, are higher in cholesterol (about 48 mg per serving) they are exceptions in the high cholesterol category due to minimal saturated fat and no trans fat – the two dietary factors that directly, and more importantly, contribute to higher blood cholesterol levels.

Because of the current farming methods used, mussels are one of the most sustainable, ocean-friendly shellfish and are considered a “best choice” on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list. They are also low in contaminants, toxins and heavy metals, like mercury. Furthermore, they are far less expensive than other shelled seafood, such as crab or lobster.

Mussels in bag

Where do I find them // What do I look for?

Depending on your region, fresh mussels are in season from October to March. At the fish market* or larger grocery, look for bright, tightly closed shells that are free of chips or cracks. They are typically sold in mesh bags, and should have a briny, mild sea smell — no strong “fishy” odor. Mussels die shortly after their “beards” are removed, so look for those with these fibrous clumps of hair still attached, and don’t remove until you’re ready to cook.

Like all fresh seafood, they are best the day of purchase. However, in-shell mussels will keep at the back of the refrigerator up 3 to 5 days in their mesh bag in a bowl covered loosely with a damp cloth or paper towel, or wrapped loosely in damp newspaper. Do not seal the mussels in a plastic bag or immerse them in a bowl of tap water for any extended period of time.

While there are roughly 17 species of mussels cultivated for consumption around the world, the most common to US markets are the shiny and sleek blue mussels from Atlantic waters like Prince Edward Island mussels (aka PEI). Well-known, but much harder to come by, are the large, green-lipped or greenshell mussels from New Zealand. And if you ever find yourself in southern Ireland, head to Baltimore, Co. Cork, for those freshly harvested from Roaring Water Bay.

You can also buy packages of in-shell mussels year-round in the refrigerated section of your market. Alternatively, pre-shelled mussels are available tinned or bottled in brine or vinegar, smoked, or in frozen packages (typically cooked).

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How do I use them?

With mention of mussels, we often think of moules frites (steamed mussels and fries) or moules marinières (“sailor-style” mussels). Both are delicious, but these simple-to-cook shellfish are suited to many more cuisines, styles of preparation and flavor combinations.

When you’ve decided on a recipe, discard any open fresh mussels that don’t close when sharply tapped. Use your fingers or the tip of a sharp paring knife to remove the beards, and a stiff brush to scrub the shells clean under cold running water. Quickly swish the mussels around in several changes of cold water to expel any grit or sand trapped inside. (Warm water will kill the mussels; you want them alive for cooking.)

The key to perfectly tender mussels is brief cooking with a small amount of liquid until they just open, roughly 8 to 10 minutes. Overcooked mussels are safe to eat, but chewy, so be vigilant and remove them from the heat as soon as possible. If any mussels do not open after 10 minutes, discard and do not eat.

Any leftover cooked mussel meat can be refrigerated (shelled) for use within 2 days, or frozen in a tightly-sealed plastic bag or container for several months. Either are excellent for soups and stews, pasta, risotto or paella.

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Here are a few ideas to get you started…

+ My springtime 2015 creation of blue mussels steamed in white wine and Ouzo with carrots, chillies, garlic, herbs and a touch of cream served with potato and collards

+ Adapt my Salmon and Veg en papillote recipe to feature mussels (or go with Martha’s version)

+ Thrace-style mussels with tomato, yogurt, basil and cinnamon

+ Classic bouillabaisse with rouille and garlicky toasts

Conchiglie pasta with broccoli, clams and mussels

Seafood paella with chorizo, mussels, turmeric and fresh vegetables

+ Catalonian fish stew — Zarzuela with mussels, almonds, garlic, saffron and breadcrumbs

+ A fragrant curried saffron mussel soup

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Now I’m craving mussels! Why not consider them as an inexpensive, sustainable and delicious option for your next family meal? And stay tuned for the recipe we created in Ireland to showcase our incredible Roaring Water Bay mussels: Beer-Steamed Mussels with Cabbage, Leeks and Smoky Bacon.

Cheers, Heather

Tell me… Do you enjoy mussels? Share your favorite recipes, please! 

*Visit the Apps tab on my Resources page for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app, or download one of their sustainable pocket guides to eco-friendly seafood in your area.

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p.s. I love hearing from you! Check back if you ask a question, because I’ll answer it here.

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